2011: Favorite 50 Albums of 2011 50 albums that defined our 2011

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series


10. Demdike Stare

[Modern Love]

Tryptych compiled three excellent LPs released by Demdike Stare in 2010 (Forest of Evil, Liberation Through Hearing, and Voices of Dust) and over 40 minutes of previously unreleased material from those same sessions into one big hulking beast. It would be a whole lot to sift through for the average person, but we’ve had almost two years to digest these pieces at this point, and none of the music has lost its luster. In 2011, there was actually a considerable amount of music with a like-minded aesthetic, and all of it was fairly solid (Andy Stott, Pinch & Shackleton, and Sandwell District all come to mind), but Demdike Stare were the shining beacon. Tryptych worked because it took the strongest elements on the duo’s also-excellent debut (2009’s Symbiosis) and put them under a magnifying glass.Theirs was a sound built on minimal techno and eerie samples of library music, obscure vocal-based “world” albums, and unending darkness. Demdike member Sean Canty works for the invaluable Finders Keepers reissue label, so there was worthy pedigree behind the crate digging and samples that went into this music. The duration of the tracks and the total volume of music here continually reinforced the overall theme and rewarded careful listening, the end result being total immersion in the void.

• Demdike Stare: http://myspace.com/pookawig
• Modern Love: http://www.modernlove.co.uk
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2cyo



09. Destroyer


If, like some, you had worried that 2008’s Trouble In Dreams may have marked the sputtering, wheezing end of Dan Bejar’s seemingly bottomless well of imagination that kept Destroyer so vital for an entire decade, Kaputt offered thundering reassurance that he was far from through. What most distinguished the record from its predecessors was the contrast between his soporific vocal delivery and the basslines and hi-hats, but these dance-party tracks weren’t the only thing to break the conventions of the well-established Destroyer template. Prominent backup vocals, his longest track yet with the 11-minute “Bay of Pigs,” a stark absence of self-referentialisms, and even music videos made this the least Destroyer-like Destroyer record yet. What hadn’t changed were Bejar’s brilliant lyrics (“All that slender-wristed white translucent business/ Passes for love, these days”), Nick Bragg’s searing guitar vibrato, and a singular boldness to create something huge. Although it has been one of the most lauded records of 2011, it feels strange to talk about Destroyer on a year-end list, because Destroyer has never been part of a zeitgeist; the context of any Destroyer record is no smaller than the entire past and future of rock music.

• Destroyer: http://destroyersongs.com
• Merge: http://www.mergerecords.com
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2cix



08. Gang Gang Dance
Eye Contact


In a year bursting at the seams with brilliant pop deconstructionism, Gang Gang Dance were the peerless vanguard of musical exploration they always are, copping a gaudy, neon-filled 1980s aesthetic better than chillwave ever did, transforming blatant artificiality into something that oozed unabashedly sincere energy, and mashing it all up to create “pop music” in the giddiest, most fundamental sense of the term — that is, music that didn’t so much speak to the masses as emerge from forgotten cultural debris. Eye Contact made its ambitions of universality clear from the outset: “I can hear everything. It’s everything time.” Extraordinarily, the band’s subsequent effort to capture that nonspecific “everything” felt neither hubristic nor forced but rather the result of a gleefully anarchic subconscious where steel drums could be used thrillingly by a band that wasn’t The Knife and flammable Rhodes riffs didn’t have to be coated in ironic detachment. And we were the benefactors of that shamelessly maximalistic imagination, reaping polychromatic, multilingual, aural bliss.

• Gang Gang Dance: http://www.ganggangdance.com
• 4AD: http://www.4ad.com
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2dln



07. John Maus
We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

[Ribbon/Upset the Rhythm]

We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves was a photobook of fictitious pre-internet memories, 11 somber scenes fueled by Shadow archetypes and the logic of tape recording and storage (magnetization, chromatic aberration, blank spaces, flutter) that distort the fidelity of the images exhibited — the altered sonic narrative overlaying with the anachronistic context — while the overall contour remained notably recognizable. With these songs, John Maus presented unexplored harmonic possibilities for conventional pop forms, employing unvarnished drum-machines, boasting reverb-saturated baritone vocals — halfway between mockery and homage — and throwing on plenty of layers of old-fashioned synthesizers, a whole that was surprisingly fresher than the sum of its obsolete parts. Thus, this album transcended the ‘retro’ or ‘revival’ clichés, providing truly convincing reminiscences of an invented past that, by extension, showed how any sort of depiction of former times is an artifice. But below the aesthetic surface also lay Maus’ defiant idea of pop music as a vernacular in capitalist societies, a major language that — when handled and distorted properly — can lead to the abolition of the market-driven cultural status quo. It was a powerful dissent from the inside that, despite the album title, was intended to emancipate individuals from their self-imposed constrictions.

• John Maus: http://mausspace.com
• Ribbon: http://www.ribbonmusic.com
• Upset the Rhythm: http://www.upsettherhythm.co.uk
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2fxh



06. Grouper


2011 was the year Liz Harris unveiled her masterwork, two separate albums (Dream Loss and Alien Observer) meant for continuous listening but that housed individual worlds. Despite the project’s impressive scope A I A was the pithiest distillation yet of Harris’ particular craft; its spacious, often indecipherable vocals and subtle, sweeping guitar drones coalesced into something startling and visionary. The albums were gorgeous, monolithic things, beautiful black holes that ensconced everything adjacent, the swirling, pressure-cooked sound of human existence condensed. Their titles were pointed sound descriptors — Dream Loss was half-conscious recall, a bleak and meditative pictorial of grief; Alien Observer was the sound of unfamiliar life, the sensation, first frightening and then liberating, of being forcibly removed from one’s own body. The music therein was at times almost unbearably visceral — on consequent listens, A I A could be equally blissful and devastating. Like most great records, A I A had its demands. A cosmic entity, it was all but impossible to immediately comprehend but insanely rewarding upon further study, a work of art both elusive and, ultimately, painfully graspable.

• Grouper: http://www.myspace.com/grouperrepuorg
• yellowelectric: https://sites.google.com/site/yellowelectric
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2e5t



05. DJ Diamond
Flight Muzik

[Planet Mu]

Inside dance circles, Flight Muzik’s suffocated samples, prickly textures, militaristic shuffling, and smack-you-in-the-face snare hits must’ve fit perfectly. Outside dance circles, Flight Muzik just sounded like a claustrophobic headfuck. There wasn’t much to grasp onto: while other footwork producers often left enough of their sampled sources for us to track down, DJ Diamond stripped his samples of their contextual significance only to be re-texturalized, injected piece by piece into a minimalistic economy of stuttering rhythms that paid tribute to house and irregular, jerky accents that envisaged the future of Windy City dance music. It was all for the rhythm, the groove of all grooves, an uncontrollable desire to Jack your body. Few releases this year could boast such an asphyxiated approach while having such profound implications on the body, and along with James Ferraro, nothing else in 2011 made me think more deeply about my relationship with music. While there were transitory moments of cold, detached resolution (“Pop The Trunk,” “Uh”) and occasional nods to narrative (“Torture Rack,” “Decoded”), Flight Muzik on the whole didn’t make any concessions to first-world concerns over modernist aesthetics; it made them feel utterly besides the point.

• DJ Diamond: http://flightmuzik.blogspot.com
• Planet Mu: http://www.planet.mu
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2gtj



04. The Caretaker
An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

[History Always Favours The Winners]

2011: a year in which the bleakness of the present caused many to seek solace in impossible visions of the past. Cinema screens glowed with antique revisions, early 20th-century histories made conveniently, divertingly neat. Midnight in Paris, Captain America, Hugo, The Artist, all set within the same two-decade span, sold tinsel-toned recreations of a world that never actually was, much as we sometimes wish it had been. The urge to repair the past, in fiction, is an understandable one; at the very least, it gives hope that future generations will someday look back and see in us something worth remembering, something admirable, if not perfect. This sentimental urge, however comforting, is a lingering curse, a futile, delusional pursuit. The past was never neat, never perfect, if only because we as humans exist in a state of perpetual decay. As the year went on and the elaborate pageantry of baubled, shimmering memory continued to be performed, an Empty Bliss Beyond This World began to feel more relevant and necessary than it had upon release, serving as a rejoinder to those smitten with sentiment. Unlike Scorsese, who restored silent films and converted them meticulously to 3D, Leyland Kirby presented pre-war 78s in their current, decaying condition, as a testament to the things that cannot be restored, those people, moments, and memories lost to time, out of reach and forever unrecoverable.

• The Caretaker: http://brainwashed.com/vvm/artists/the_caretaker.html
• History Always Favours The Winners: http://brainwashed.com/vvm
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2f8b



03. Colin Stetson
New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges


New History Warfare was the most muscular record released this year, no doubt about it. In terms of sheer sonic brawn, nothing else came close. It’s a masterpiece of exertion: an enormous, pulsing, swirling tempest of sound generated for the most part by just one man and his beast of a saxophone: no loops, no electronics, and mostly in a single take. Not that this sounded like any sax playing you’ve heard before. Stetson pushed both his instrument and his own body right to the limit. And because of the way the microphones had been placed, we heard everything: the clattering of keys, the heaving and sucking of breath, Stetson’s moans and melodic wails. This is what the ‘grain’ sounds like when it’s mic’d up and amplified. The effect may have been bluesless, but it was totally soulful. And, in fact, it was often when Stetson reined himself in most, in the relative calm between storms, that the effect was at its most profound: the wrenching anguish of “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” with its superb vocal from My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, the mounting drone of album closer “In Love and In Justice.” New History Warfare sounded like nothing else this year. It was totally peerless: powerful, moving, original, an eruption of sheer life-force that quickened our pulses and stirred our souls.

• Colin Stetson: http://colinstetson.com
• Constellation.: http://cstrecords.com



02. James Blake
James Blake


For sure, James Blake marked a salient in his own career, but what truly made it astonishing was how logically it sprung, in equal parts, from the piano-focused Klavierwerke, the broken sampling of CMYK, and the unusual dubstep of The Bells Sketch. In the clouds of white noise that envelop “The Wilhelm Scream,” as he sang of resignation — “might as well fall in” — Blake retained his dubstep roots while proving that the speaker could be an effective instrument in its own right. Certain moments, like in the fragmented beats that uneasily propel “I Never Learnt to Share” or the sub-bass rumble and sonar toll of Feist cover “Limit To Your Love,” lent an abyssal quality to the soul-inflected melodies and lyrical themes of alienation. But perhaps the most impressive quality was his use of space, the minimal backing tracks and generous silences that allow his processed, digital choirs to leap out with so much impact. James Blake was a unique, definitive statement that primed expectations of bigger things to come from the young London artist, on which he had already begun to deliver in the form of two new EPs that rounded out his 2011 output.

• James Blake: http://jamesblakemusic.com
• Atlas: http://atlasrecords.net
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2d37



01. Oneohtrix Point Never

by Ian Latta

…With a desirous and alienated ear, contemporary internet-based musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never are playing out a story that previously took place on the fringes of the avant-garde over the last century. With the invention of photography, a new human was revealed to the camera-eye: Snapshots showed a human being frozen in between readable expressions, nature on the way to culture, an uncanny contraption made of flesh, bone, and fat, vibrating, folding, filling and emptying as it moved between recognizably human expressions like a smile or a frown. We’ve all taken bad photos of ourselves and failed to recognize the subject of the photo, but who or what is this human-in-transit? What is the status of this flesh that obeys gravity more than social cues? How are we responsible to this squinting, grimacing, wincing creature? In other words: stars — they’re just like us — but who are we? Just as photography revealed the body as a nonsense poem, in the sound poetry of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica, this hidden language unveiled before the camera eye was made audible through digital micro-editing, tuning into the voices of the spectacle with a desirous and alienated ear…

…The pith of Replica: a latticework of sibilants, laminals, clicks, implosives, ejectives, fricatives, pulmonics, expands the limits of human vocal expression beyond phonetic language. Before Replica and the excellent eccojams of Dan Lopatin’s YouTube channel and early Games comes not just DJ Screw but William S. Burroughs, Antonin Artaud, the Ultraletterists, and other sound poets who found a new human articulation in these moments when expression takes a backseat to the laws of physics. Proto-Situationists and radical surrealists like François Dufrêne and Henri Chopin discovered in magnetic tape a medium that liberated speech from voice. Through splicing, manipulation of tape speed, overdubbing, addition of reverb, and other dub effects, poets like Chopin and Bob Cobbing abandoned words in favor of particles of sound, letting one mouth become an entire orchestra. In these poems, sound became a bodily landscape upon which a self might be composed, dramatized, or materialized out of the same dust that comprises the pith of Replica: a latticework of sibilants, laminals, clicks, implosives, ejectives, fricatives, pulmonics…

…OPN’s consonantal chorus of lost voices, the vocabulary of a glossa sans logos, highlighted what Roland Barthes called the “grain” of the voice, the song that comes from the body, not from the speaking subject — the body itself speaking, in a wet, libidinal poetry of consonants — not the speech of the lungs, but of “the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucus membranes, the nose.” Barthes’ posthuman voice of the desirous recording is the same discovered by Lopatin, one that doesn’t come at the level of the word or even the phoneme (not the human, not the cultural level), but at the level of the glottal stop, the fleshy mechanical part of the body. In an interview with Altered Zones, Lopatin explained his interest in this noise that surrounds and comprises signs thusly: “It’s revealing that we’re not in a perfect system though we want to be. We want to believe that we’re efficient and perfect, but things are totally out of control and chaotic, like the way we speak and the way we think.” The human subject becomes a libidinal soundscape just barely contained within our skins, looped air temporarily trapped by the folds of the body, echoing with the consonantal chorus of lost voices, the vocabulary of a glossa sans logos…

…Something like an epistemological break as compared to the pristine surfaces of OPN’s synth recordings, OPN’s disintegrated voices were not the breaths of an artist or even a synthesizer. They were both. On Replica, Lopatin united the two basic aesthetics of electronic music: the acousmatic and the cut-up. The acousmatic seeks absolute abstraction in electronic sound, totally without reference to a physical world. This is the mode of the analogue synth, the literally experimental music of the mid 20th century that sought to reform music as a purely non-referential or at least absolutely alien soundscape. The sampling, DJ aesthetic, on the other hand, doesn’t eschew reference so much as overload it, reveling in the shards of modernity, playing with reference in a way that is a replica of nothing in the world so much as postmodern consciousness itself. Replica was composed from 80s TV commercials, strangely sinister sounds of aluminum cans being popped, and totally unsated sighs of “Ahh!” Far from the dreams of a human unconscious, these were rather an insidious capitalist desiring machine. This liberated speech that emerged from the avant garde’s tape recorders could speak only through that machine — or, even more ominously, as Lopatin suggested with his source material of mass-market commercials, it could only speak using the sounds of capital. To a less subversive end, in this essay, I’ve sampled and looped Reid Scott Reid’s stellar review of Replica, but his words are not the beginning or end of this loop. On this year-end list and across the internet underground is emerging a linguistic understanding of this phenomenon of hypnagogic pop, one that hears the jams kicked out at the conceptual level, the looped breaks slipping between different ways of knowing as much as different decades of pop history. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, in his “Art After Philosophy,” writes that the meaning of art is never in the physical object or even the thoughts or intentions of the artist, but instead “the propositions of art […] express definitions of art, or the formal consequences of definitions of art” (emphasis mine). On Replica, Lopatin is frankly inspiring to us as listeners and as writers, looping the spectacle with a damaged grandeur that is, for this reviewer’s understanding of what it means to jam in 2011, close to something like an epistemological break…

• Oneohtrix Point Never: http://www.pointnever.com
• Software: http://softwarelabel.net
• TMT Review: http://tmxt.es/2h4p



[Artwork: Keith Kawaii]


Full list:

50. Tom Waits - Bad As Me
49. Liturgy - Aesthethica
48. Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres
47. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo
46. A Winged Victory For The Sullen - A Winged Victory For The Sullen
45. Tiziana Bertoncini & Thomas Lehn - Horsky Park
44. The Psychic Paramount - II
43. St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
42. Zomby - Dedication
41. Fabio Orsi - Stand Before Me, Oh My Soul
40. Kreng - Grimoire
39. Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa - Suara Naga
38. Earth - Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1
37. Telebossa - Telebossa
36. Future Islands - On the Water
35. The Men - Leave Home
34. Panda Bear - Tomboy
33. Rafael Toral - Space Elements Vol. III
32. M83 - Hurry Up, Were Dreaming
31. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
30. Lil B - I’m Gay
29. Thee Oh Sees - Castlemania
28. Thee Oh Sees - Carrion Crawler/The Dream
27. The Weeknd - House Of Balloons
26. Amen Dunes - Through Donkey Jaw
25. Hype Williams - One Nation
24. Bill Orcutt - How The Thing Sings
23. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
22. Death Grips - Exmilitary
21. James Ferraro - Far Side Virtual
20. DJ Rashad - Just A Taste Vol. 1
19. Sean McCann - The Capital
18. The Flaming Lips - The Strobo Trip: Light and Audio Phase Illusions Toy
17. Dirty Beaches - Badlands
15. Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
14. Peaking Lights - 936
13. Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
12. tUnE-YarDs - w h o k i l l
11. Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
10. Demdike Stare - Tryptych
09. Destroyer - Kaputt
08. Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
07. John Maus - We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
06. Grouper - A I A
05. DJ Diamond - Flight Muzik
04. The Caretaker - An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
03. Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
02. James Blake - James Blake
01. Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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